Books: Cultural Amnesia — F Scott Fitzgerald |
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F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) is a cautionary tale, but the tale is about us more than about him. Tormented by a glamorous marriage that went wrong, drinking himself to destruction while doing second-rate work to pay the bills, lost in a Hollywood system guaranteed to frustrate what was left of his ability, he became the focal point of numberless journalistic stories about the waste of a literary talent. He himself gave the starting signal for that approach with the self-flagellating articles later collected by his friend Edmund Wilson in The Crack-Up. Faultless in its transparent style and full of true things about the perils of the creative life, it is certainly a book to read and remember, but not until we have read and remembered (indeed memorized) The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. Otherwise we might get the absurd idea that one of the most important modern writers spent his career preparing himself for a suitably edifying disintegration. The inevitable effect of a biographer’s hindsight is to belittle the subject’s foresight. As his two great novels prove, Fitzgerald was well aware that the culture of glamour was a drawback of democracy, a levelling mechanism calculated to give us comfort by turning gifted lives into manageable legends. If he had written nothing else at all after The Great Gatsby, we would still be faced with one of the prophetic books of the twentieth century. Fitzgerald guessed where celebrity, if pursued for itself, was bound to end up: as a dead body in the swimming pool.

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A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every year. Or rather it forms but instead of being a subconscious amalgam of all that you have admired, it is simply a reflection of the last writer you have read, a watered-down journalese.


MORE THAN FORTY years after I first read them, these two sentences from the ailing writer to his teenage daughter still arouse that thrill of delighted approbation that once took the form of the word “yes!,” uttered while one stood up suddenly before walking around the room. Nowadays I stay in my chair, but in the metaphysical sense I am no less moved. Fitzgerald wrote this letter in 1940. Propelled by his alcoholism, he was far gone in his decline by then: so far gone that he could actually believe his stints in Hollywood were getting him out of trouble instead of further in. (We should hasten to note that it wasn’t the place’s fault: other writers could work the double trick of staying true to their gifts while still doing what the studios wanted, but Fitzgerald was cursed, or blessed, with an incurable lack of savvy about conserving his energies.) He was not so far gone, however, that he didn’t feel the need to impress his daughter by presenting himself as a wise man. In the long run, of course, there was a cosmic joke: he was a wise man. Great failure had made him so. It takes a great artist to have a great failure, and F. Scott Fitzgerald was so great an artist that he could turn even his fatal personal inadequacies into material for poetry. The magazine articles collected in The Crack-Up were worth the crack-up: the moment when his mind came closest to disintegrating was the moment when his prose style came closest to a perfect coherence. That was quite a thing for it to do so markedly, because it had always been coherent. Fitzgerald, seemingly from his apprentice years, had wielded a style of inclusive fluency, his because it was nobody else’s: the ideal natural, neutral style, so finely judged in its musicality it convinces its readers that their own melodic sense is being answered from phrase to phrase, sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. Can we really believe that he arrived at his style only after reading many other great stylists, absorbing and synthesizing their various influences, and somehow contriving to eliminate the residues, even of the latest one? The belief comes hard.

Edmund Wilson guarded and nurtured Fitzgerald’s reputation: helped, in fact, to bring it back from almost nowhere. The precious miscellany we call The Crack-Up was Wilson’s editorial work, and was prefaced by his magnificent valedictory poem to Fitzgerald that begins “Scott, your last fragments I arrange tonight ...”: in my view one of the touchstone modern poems, all the more valuable for being anachronistic. The Crack-Up also contains the selection of letters in which I first read this quotation, at a time when I was still unrecovered from being overwhelmed by The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. By those two books one is always impressed, but their first impact turns the world into Fitzgerald’s creation: one is unduly receptive to any news about him, and in those days—the late fifties—it was almost exclusively Wilson who was reading the news. Wilson made no strictures about Fitzgerald’s talent. But Wilson did make Fitzgerald out to be a bit of a lummox scholastically, not unlike the footballer Bolenciecwcz in Thurber’s college memoir: the footballer who, “while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter.” In that regard, the picture Wilson painted of Fitzgerald in maturity and later life seemed not very different from the young Princeton student who had played the language by ear and thrown together his first books under the obvious influence of nobody more exalted than Compton Mackenzie. Looking back on it, in fact, Wilson’s generous tributes to his academically clueless classmate add up to a bit of a backhander: he praises the marvellous boy, but only on the understanding that a boy is what the marvellous boy remained. According to Wilson, Fitzgerald, although fully gifted, wasn’t fully serious. Making the usual contrast between Fitzgerald and Hemingway—it was always usual, although Wilson was among the very first to draw upon it for didactic purposes—Wilson said that Hemingway was the one who could starve for his art. Hemingway, it was implied, had the stuff in him that the high life could not distort. Hollywood might make silly stories out of Hemingway’s books; and Hemingway might even write a silly story so that Hollywood would get lucratively interested; but at least Hemingway guarded himself against the temptation or the necessity to work in Hollywood. Hemingway was serious about literature. He knew more about literature. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were both writers, but Hemingway was the reader.

Looking further into Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter, Frances, one is inclined to agree. Fitzgerald asks her whether she has read any good books lately, and supplies, over the course of a series of letters, what amounts to a “such as” list. There are some good names on it, and Fitzgerald has obviously read among them to a considerable critical depth: Henry James, Turgenev, Dreiser, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, D. H. Lawrence, Flaubert and Thomas Mann are all sifted, analysed and compared. But in other respects the list is pretty scrappy. In the context of the chic leftism then prevalent in Hollywood, The Communist Manifesto is a plausible inclusion, but when he recommends Ten Days That Shook the World you start to wonder. If Fitzgerald was belatedly reading up on modern political events in order to repair the lucanae in his own education, there might have been some reason to favour such a book in order that his daughter might be better informed from the beginning; but as a measure for style, Ten Days That Shook the World is devoid of beneficial properties. There were American journalists and non-fiction writers of the period who could be studied for their prose: Wilson, Mencken, even George Jean Nathan when his frenzy to decorate did not weigh down his architecture. There were cultural reporters who have since dated hopelessly because what they reported has been absorbed, while the way they reported it was never interesting enough in itself to ensure their survival: you could put Gilbert Seldes in that camp, and the wonderfully curious James Gibbons Huneker. (Paul Rosenfeld, much favoured by Edmund Wilson, should, in my opinion, be left to rest: though he wrote quirkily and well about modern music, he essentially believed that jazz would never amount to anything while it remained in the hands of black people.) But John Reed, even at the time, fell into the category of those who could barely write at all. In Ten Days That Shook the World he had the biggest story on earth to tell, and no gift to tell it with. He ended up buried in the Kremlin wall, but the reader feels the same weight. To Fitzgerald, this discrepancy between task and talent must have been apparent at a glance. It follows, damagingly, that Fitzgerald felt he ought to rank Reed’s celebrated kludge as a good book, presumably because of the line it spouted. One is forced to conclude that Fitzgerald not only declined to take his own literary judgement as an absolute, he thought there was another absolute that he ought to conform to, if only he could figure out what it was.

What Fitzgerald says is true, but its truth is more in our possession than his. In the circumstances from which he speaks, self-deception is not far away, nor is the bombast that goes with it. Fitzgerald was such a drinker that when he was drinking nothing but beer he thought he was on the wagon. (American beer at the time was low on alcohol but he ordered it by the crate.) Similarly he might have convinced himself that he had always been a dedicated student of his art, just because he remembered how, during all those parties, he had made plans to start some systematic reading the next morning, and had made the same plans again during the hangover. Hemingway had better claims to the title of serious reader, even though he flourished his credentials with a bluster that emphasized just how modest in the matter Fitzgerald was. In Green Hills of Africa there is some ludicrous posturing around the campfire as Papa announces his intention of going toe to toe with Tolstoy. The embarrassment factor is off the scale, but the implied claim to a fellow craftsman’s intimacy with Tolstoy is nothing but the truth. Hemingway knew Tolstoy almost by heart, and there were less obvious tastes in which he showed the same loving diligence—which, it should be remembered, can’t be had without humility. When Hemingway praised Ronald Firbank, it was no mere flirtation. Critics as disparate in their origins and interests as Edmund Wilson and Evelyn Waugh both spotted that Hemingway’s tricks of arranging dialogue had been quietly lifted from Firbank. Hemingway the bull-necked ruffian and Firbank the pale exquisite sensitively hiding behind the sofa: they were such different writers that a connection seemed unlikely. But it was more than a connection. In the direction from Firbank to Hemingway it looked like the kind of influence that Fitzgerald was talking about in his letter—an absorption. The subtext of Fitzgerald’s homily is that you must be influenced by a lot of exemplars to be influenced properly. If you are influenced by only one, there will be traces, and the essence of an absorption is that you don’t see the traces. One continues to suspect of Fitzgerald, however, that the reason he showed no traces is that he was never really influenced: he was more or less born writing in his characteristic manner and is recommending school to his daughter because he played hookey himself, and is all the more ashamed because he got away with it.

Fitzgerald’s self-schooling in prose style consisted mainly of eliminating arabesques. Montesquieu, in his formative years, did the same: he was temperamentally susceptible to the superficial charm of those virtuoso performers whose spectacular effects he was designed by his artistic nature to supersede with a dignified exposition limpid even when condensed. A case could be made that such powerful writers don’t need to be influenced by any model: they need merely to encounter examples of the unadorned expression to which they should aspire, the capacity for which they already possess within themselves. If Fitzgerald can be said to have absorbed and amalgamated all the excellent stylists in English, then it was probably because he was already like that, deep down. His fellow-feeling for Keats (the title of Tender Is the Night is only one of the signs) reminds us of a question: where did Keats get it from? Keats’s touch and tone (we notice his excesses because they are his, not because they are borrowed) had always been fully formed: though he read prodigiously throughout his short life, he seemed mainly in search of reassurance that he was not as unique as he felt. Fitzgerald was like that, except that he was seldom alone long enough to find out that he was lonely. Quite early on, he ceased to sound like anybody else. The young Hemingway sounded like Gertrude Stein, and later on he sounded more and more like Hemingway, in a dreadfully hypertrophied example of the self-imitation we call mannerism.

Fitzgerald was never mannered except in his attitudes, and not even they became predictable until, with his final curtain already falling, the set of sketches we call The Last Tycoon assembled them in the one place. For all we know, the principal influence other writers had on Fitzgerald lay in the effort he took to avoid echoing their rhythm and tone. If genius is inherently absorptive, that might always be the principal influence: whereas weak writers sound instantly and comically like the writers they admire, strong writers take care not to, as part of their strength. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s well-manicured dreamland on Long Island has something in it of a Booth Tarkington small-town idyll. Jay Gatsby carries distant echoes of Penrod Schofield. The echoes would be louder if Fitzgerald had not known how to suppress his memories of Tarkington’s slick-magazine romanticism, and the memories might have been harder to suppress if they had not been so powerful and thus easy to identify. For any writer, the writers he reads when young open up possibilities of subject matter, drama and psychology. It is quite possible that some of the writers who open up the most to him in these areas will not be artists at all; but if they are, they will inevitably also open up possibilities of diction, rhythm and narrative tactics. The strong talent will be less likely to echo these than will the weak talent. Now justly forgotten, the busy 1950s journeyman Robert Ruark, in books like Horn of the Hunter, wrote in abject homage to Hemingway. He wanted to live like Hemingway, shooting every animal in Africa. Fatally for his achievement as well as for the animals, he also wanted to write like Hemingway, copying all his cadences. He would never have tried to copy Fitzgerald. But copying Hemingway seemed easy to do—for at least a generation, every mediocre American writer lapsed automatically into Hemingwayesque incantation—and Ruark did it with a thoroughness that established him unchallengeably in the position of Hemingway’s second most helpless unintentional parodist. The first, alas, was Hemingway himself. Sounding more like his own imitators as his works became more empty, he provided an annihilating illustration of why style and substance are separable concepts after all.

It can be argued—indeed, it is hard to argue otherwise—that ever since Shakespeare, every writer in English literature has had to devote a huge effort to not aping him. The chief reason there can’t be another Shakespeare is that he never had to waste time doing the same. Shakespeare created a permanent imbalance in every traditional field of subject matter and expression, so that it will never be possible to escape his influence, especially not by ignoring it. (The fallacy in the idea that purity of expression can arise from untainted ignorance lies right there.) The process of submission and avoidance is so deep-seated and long lived that it is hard to examine. But developments in technology and social organization continually make it possible for someone to make a green-field discovery. A new range can be opened up, and ways of exploring it can be developed, but the fresh seam can be mined only as far as the individual artistic personality allows—and that individual artistic personality is the thing to keep in mind when talking of style, tone, diction and influence. Hemingway, in his short stories, could equal Tolstoy’s writing about warfare in the Caucasian forests and at the bastions of Sebastopol. For modern times, Tolstoy opened up a field—the field of civilized men taken back to natural savagery by warfare. In late 1942, Ernst Jünger in his Caucasus notebooks consciously echoed Tolstoy’s effects and cited his name to prove it. Hemingway didn’t need to mention the name: the forests and the closely wooded creeks of his early stories ring with Tolstoy’s rifle shots and the snort of his horses. Hemingway took on board every technique that Tostoy ever devised. But in all of Hemingway there is nothing like the relationship of Anna Karenina and Vronsky. In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway could imagine himself as an emasculated man; but he could never imagine himself as a weak one, and the idea of a strong man weakened by an emotional dependency was not within his imaginative compass. (It might well have been within his life, but that would have been the very reason that, for him, it was not something he cared to imagine.) For Fitzgerald, on the other hand, Anna and Vronsky were well within range. In Tender Is the Night, the mere existence of Nicole does to Dick Diver what the mere existence of Anna does to Vronsky. Fitzgerald nowhere sounds like Tolstoy, but his themes, and especially his love themes, are everywhere comparable. Their minds are alike, and one might as well say their talents are alike: because in art the mind is the talent, although just how the artistic talent-mind is constituted might be destined to remain a mystery, in the sense of being inherently impossible to analyse to any depth beyond the outermost surface, which is the art itself. With Fitzgerald, however, the place to start analysing it is not in The Crack-Up, which, although certainly a work of art, shows only the perfection his prose could attain when his larger creative powers were disintegrating. The place to start is one or the other of the two major novels, where those powers are integrated.

When the talent-mind of the artist exists and has the conditions to express itself, it seems to develop with great speed and daunting ease. On this subject, scholarship can be misleading, and the formal history of the plastic arts can be especially misleading. For long periods and over wide areas, primitivism reigns, but that might only mean that the wrong people are painting the pictures, carving the logs and throwing the pots. The idea is hard to kill that the natural condition of graphic art is to be not very impressive: after all, the idea fits what we ourselves can do, who can barely draw a man standing sideways. But those cave paintings in France, if they didn’t come out of nowhere, certainly came out of a very short tradition. In the eye of history, perfection was reached in a trice. The animals on the walls make ruins of all developmental theories. No higher development is possible: there is nowhere to go except abstraction. There are good reasons for thinking this to be the natural condition not just of graphic art but of all the arts, even music: that something which needs to be expressed will quite rapidly gather towards it all the technical means it requires. It might be said that it takes a while to marshal a symphonic tradition to the point where Beethoven can write the Eroica. And so it does, because there are practical considerations: for one thing, all the instruments have to be invented, and very few instruments were invented just to be in an orchestra—most of them were invented for separate purposes. But Bach needed few predecessors in order to write The Well-Tempered Clavichord, and he didn’t even need a very highly developed clavichord: it just had to be well tempered.

None of this line of thought is meant to simplify the question of the individual talent and its composition. On the contrary: one is trying to complicate it, by rendering it even less explicable than it was. Explicability is inimical to it. Talent can be dissected, but not alive. The elegant yet conversational cadence of Fitzgerald’s prose is unmistakable precisely because it can’t be analysed.The creative talent is probably the most complex phenomenon a non-scientist will ever have to deal with, and to deal with it the non-scientist needs first of all to realize that there is only one thing he can borrow from the scientist, but borrow it he must—the scientist’s unsleeping attention to the question of what constitutes evidence. Just because someone says that he has been influenced by someone else, for example, doesn’t mean that he has, and just because someone doesn’t say that he has doesn’t mean that he hasn’t. In philosophy, an area where gifted people try hard to tell the truth, few practitioners have ever been able to provide plausible reports of their own interior workings. In the creative arts, where fantasy is at a premium, introspection is even less likely to be reliable. Advice, rules of thumb and cautionary tales from established artists are always worth hearing—Goethe certainly thought that such talmudic material was worth providing—but there is no guarantee that those artists ever followed the same path themselves. What they are giving you might be the sum of their experience, but could just as well be a schematized form of what they had by nature. They might be trying to teach you what they had no need to learn.

There is no small print, unfortunately, to warn us it might be impossible to teach. We guess, and probably guess correctly, that if an artist acquires technical ability beyond the requirements of what lies within him to be expressed, the result can only be mannerism. The same guess should lead us to the possibility that the technical expertise artists really do need they will be driven to acquire by the demands of talent. If there is a class, whether for music or for painting, the best students in it know what they want; and it is doubtful whether a class for creative writing can teach anything at all except remedial reading. We shout “yes” to Fitzgerald’s advice because what he recommends is what we were doing anyway: reading dozens of the best writers we could find, including him. As things turned out, Fitzgerald’s daughter did become a writer: but never one like him, because what he had could not be transmitted.

The same was true for Rilke and his letters to a young poet. Briefe an einen jungen Dichter is a toy-town book for the magic doll’s house of the mind, but before we choke up with twee gratitude for its impeccably balanced cracker-mottoes we should remember that the young poet to whom they were addressed turned into a boring old businessman whose only masterpiece was his impeccably balanced account book. Rilke and Fitzgerald were two different versions of the same neurotic wreck, and both would have given a lot, in their darker hours, to be blessed with the ordinary ambitions of the youngsters they advised. But the avuncular advice, as always, ran exclusively in the wrong direction, from those in need of consolation to those who could not benefit. An effective letter from Fitzgerald’s daughter to her desperate father would have had too much to cover: it would have had to tell him to get out of Hollywood, to go back in time, to stop imagining that he could hold his drink, to visit the fashionable world for material but never think that he could live in it, and above all to marry someone else—someone he could not damage, and who would therefore not damage him.

He wouldn’t have listened anyway. When a man on a cross is told to save himself, he can do so only at the price of seeming to admit that it was all for nothing—he knows better than that. Concerning Fitzgerald, there is a principle that can’t be taught in a creative writing class and is hard enough to teach in the regular English faculty, but it’s worth a try: his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, but we wouldn’t have those if he hadn’t been like that. Fitzgerald’s prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when, by his own later standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man.